Pushpa Kumari and The Tulsi Drawing


Pushpa Kumari is an artist informed by heritage. Her world is one of intimacy and lines, gods and mythology. She draws on paper creating works that look like engravings, using only a bottle of ink and a simple pen. When in process, it is as if she is in meditation. Her focus is intense, defining forms directly on the page. This bold approach leaves no room for error; if her hand slips a drawing can be ruined, weeks of work wasted. While Kumari’s finesse with materials shows a master’s hand, her art is compelling for reasons beyond technique.

A woman in her early forties, Kumari has devoted her life entirely to drawing. In India, a country of arranged marriages, Kumari remains single. She values her freedom and independence, focusing all energies on her art. By accepting an unconventional Indian lifestyle, she has been able to develop a unique body of work, different both in concept and form from her peers.

Born in a part of India known for painting, Kumari was surrounded by art. The women of Madhubani, Mithila, in the State of Bihar, have for generations embellished the floors and walls of their homes with complex, cultivated images. These works were not just decorative, but used to teach the epic Hindu myths to the children of the Mithila.

Kumari absorbed the artistic energy of the women closest to her, partially her grandmother, Maha Sundari Devi. Devi was one of the first women to explore the possibilities of applying the wall painting imagery on paper. She was passionate and innovative, and an inspiration to Kumari.

While Devi made the leap from wall to paper, her renderings conform to the standards of Mithila culture. Kumari’s work transcends tradition, in approach, concept and intensity. Kumari has taken the basic elements of Mithila painting and created a lexicon all her own. She is informed by her heritage, but like most artists in the West, she creates drawings for reasons that are motivated by the personal, not driven by cultural obligations.

Kumari does draw subjects that at first glance appear traditional. However, she uses these images as a platform to build upon. When Hindu myths are depicted, the drawings are much more than illustrated stories. Figures interact, emotion is evident; Kumari presents her ideas with an intensity that communicates how completely absorbed she is in the creative process.

Kumari generally works within a modest format, drawing on sheets of paper approximately twenty by thirty inches. In the last few years she has created larger works by combining several sheets of paper. Like Japanese wood block triptychs, each page can stand alone as work in its own right, but when viewed together the images link in ways obvious as well as implied.

Kumari can also be provocative in a simple small format. One untitled drawing, less than 9 x 12 inches, is emotionally charged and powerful beyond it’s humble scale. A scene that is repeated daily in rural India, behind closed doors, is revealed . . . female infanticide. The power of this drawing is overwhelming, almost unimaginable. Standing pregnant, back to a wall, a woman faces trauma from another, who lying on the floor for support literally kicks the baby from the womb. This brutal image is simply presented, with just the slightest of emotions suggested, three tears from the mother’s eye.

Here we see Kuamri as feminist, aligned with the young women of India who may lose all their freedoms when married. Political in orientation, this work confronts the inequities and harshness of Indian society, straight on, without hesitation. Kumari has an especially close relationship with her many younger sisters, her mother, and grandmother, so it is not unexpected that women are often the dominant subjects in her drawings.

Western curators and critics often misunderstand artists like Kumari. It is common to see American and European curators visiting India to develop a show on the new “Indian” art. These professionals tend to gravitate to work that seems familiar to them. What they see as “contemporary” is often closely related to formats known in the West. However, Western art media and markets profoundly influence many Indian artists, resulting in efforts that are derivative, with a seasoning of heritage/nationalism.

Pushpa Kumari’s influences are purely India. Her voice is authentic and her vision non-compromised. She is stimulated by the complexity of modern India and those interests direct her work. Her approach to drawing may be personal and intuitive, or direct and confrontational, yet always distinctly Indian.

The Tulsi Drawing is Kumari’s most ambitious effort to date, consisting of eight panels, totaling 24 in height and 12 feet in length. The drawing took over three years (2004 – 2006) to complete with the line quality finer than any of her previous drawings. Depicting the Hindu myth of a woman’s transformation into the revered Tulsi plant, this work is poetic and spiritual, while at the same time violent and sexual.

This complex story is rendered in an equally complex manner. Parts of the composition are dense with lines; others open, relying on negative space to define form. In some panels the image flows from one to the next; in others the relationship of the connecting drawings is less obvious. It is almost unimaginable that there were no preliminary sketches for The Tulsi Drawing. Kumari simply started with the first sheet of paper on the left and kept drawing until all eight panels were complete. This is even more remarkable given the conditions under which Kumari works; she has no actual studio. She lives in New Delhi, in one room with many other family members. She draws on the floor in the corner of their communal space, without the possibility of ever seeing the total work arranged sequentially.

In the next section, I will describe each painting from The Tulsi Drawing.

Painting #1: (shown above) King Dambh’s wife was practicing severe penance on the banks of river Gandhaki. Pleased with her efforts, Brahma granted her the boon of a child. A “twister” appeared from the skies and settled in the womb of the king’s wife. The child was very strong and imposing in the womb itself. The child was named Jalandhar. But the child’s head was in the shape of a shell (“shankh”) and thus came to be known as “Shankhchud” in the world.

Painting #2: Shankhchud grows into a young man. Brahma asks him to go to the Badri jungles to marry the ascetic lady Vrinda who is meditating there. She is the only woman worthy of Shankhchud and has been practicing penance in the Badri jungles for many years.


Painting #3: The daughter of the calm Dharmchhaj, Vrinda is lost in meditation in the Badri jungles. Shankhchud reaches there and introduces himself to Vrinda. He also recalls an incident from his previous birth. Vrinda says,”My lord, I am praying here so as to get you for a husband. In the Krishna era, you were my husband Sudama. Owing to Radha’s curse, you have been born as Shankhchud. In this life too, I wish to be your wife.” They get married!


Painting #4: After the marriage, Shankhchud gets busy in ruling his kingdom. Power goes to his head and he turns into a proud and arrogant man. One day, he sees Parvati, Lord Shiva’s consort (Shankar) and begins to desire her. Seeing this Lord Shankar orders his army, led by his devout followers Bhadrakali, Nandi, and Gandharva, to capture Shankhchud. They try hard but owing to Shankhchud’s excessive strength and power and Vrinda’s holy powers, they cannot capture him.

Painting #5: Ages pass, with Lord Shankar himself battling Shankhchud but he is still not defeated. It was then Brahma says, “Shankhchud’s life is safe because of Vrinda. Till Vrinda’s love is pure, Shankhchud cannot die.” Lord Vishnu is roped in to help defeat Shankhchud.


Painting #6: Vishnu goes to Vrinda in the guise of Shankhchud. Vrinda was thrilled to see her husband. They embrace and make love. It is while making love that Vrinda began to doubt that this is her husband. She says, “You do not make love like my husband, who are you?” Embarrassed, Vishnu appeared in his true form but her love had been corrupted. At that moment, Shankar kills Shankhchud with his trishul.


Painting #7: Vrinda is crying. She shouts, “What wrong have I done to you that you turned years of my penance to nothing in a matter of seconds through treachery? I do not wish to live now. You have killed my husband. I, an unfortunate woman, curse you–you have been treacherous and rubbed soot on my face so you shall turn into a black stone that lies in water and is eaten by insects.”

Vishnu said, “I am your culprit. I wish to take you as my wife to repent for what I have done. You should give up this dirty impure body by bathing in the river Gandhaki that comes out of Shankar’s hand and take the form of the holy Basil. The world shall henceforth know you as the Holy Basil (Tulsi). Your mere touch will make sure that there is clean air for all living beings. Your husband Shankhchud shall live on this earth as a conch shell, the sound of which shall cleanse the air and which shall be used for making offerings to the God.”


Painting #8: The River Gandhaki flows out from Lord Shankar’s hand. Vrinda renounces her body in the river and appears in the form of a Basil plant. This plant is famous still today. From the religious point of view, it is considered holy. Ayurveda finds in it a cure for many ills. It is for this reason that people from all religions, caste and different walks of life like to grow this plant in their homes.

Scott Rothstein is an artist who writes primarily about self-taught art and artists informed by traditional culture. His own work can been seen in several American museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rothstein has lived in Philadelphia, New York City, New Delhi, and Tokyo. He is currently based in Bangkok.